Some Hispanics feel mysterious tug of Jewish hertiage
Drawing of St. Augustine, Florida, the first permanent settlement in America, founded in 1565. Although Jews could not have expressed their Judaism at the time, Sephardic (Spanish Jewish) names are on the list of the city’s residents. Pedro Menendez Marques, Florida’s third Spanish governor (1577-1589), may have been a converso, a Jew who pretended to convert to Christianity. (Michael F McElroy, Sun Sentinel / May 31, 2010)
Growing up in the Catholic faith, Trudi Berglin noticed her mother had a “compulsion” to buy a new set of dishes every spring. No one knew the origin of this family tradition — not even her mother.
Only after Berglin, 70, of Fort Lauderdale, became an adult did she learn about the Jewish custom of using a special set of dishes for Passover, which falls around Easter.
She also figured out her family fled from Spain to Italy at the time of the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century. Under that royal Catholic tribunal for rooting out the unorthodox, Spanish Jews had three choices: leave, convert or die.
Some pretended to convert but went on performing Jewish rituals secretly. Even explaining why to the next generation would be risky. Over the centuries some practices survived, but none of the practitioners knew why they were doing what they did.
Those closet Jews are called conversos, or marranos, a disparaging term for someone who converts in name only to avoid persecution. Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal fled mostly to Turkey, Holland and Bulgaria. Later, they settled in Brazil, France, Italy, Mexico and Peru. Some, like Berglin’s family, eventually emigrated to America.
Now people like her are asking questions that spring from a lifetime of nagging feelings about their true background. Some are even turning to DNA testing to see if they have the markers that show they are, at the most basic genetic level, Jewish.
The Rev. William Sanchez, a Catholic priest in Albuquerque, N.M., is one of them. As a child he was warned away from eating pork and bacon. As an adult he took a test for the Jewish DNA marker, and it came back positive.
Today he helps run the Sephardim- New Mexico Project. It opened in 2002 to identify Jewish Hispanics in New Mexico, a state with a high concentration of Hispanics, much like Florida. Sanchez estimates about one-third of the 210 men who have sought testing are Jewish.
“Most of the time it’s to have some type of DNA or scientific way of verifying what they already know or believe,” he said.
In Fort Lauderdale, Berglin became so convinced of her heritage that she converted to Judaism in 1989. Her mother’s reaction: “Oh, I wondered if anybody would ever go back.”
“I still get chills myself,” Berglin said. “I said to her, ‘Now I know why you bought all the damn dishes.’ She said, ‘Is that what they do?’ ”
Historians believe there were 200,000 to 400,000 Jews in Spain at the time of the Inquisition and some scholars estimate 100,000 of them chose exile over conversion, said Randall Belinfante, senior librarian and archivist for the American Sephardi Federation in New York.
There is no way to know how many were conversos because they kept such a low profile, he said. “They tend to be very private about their business.”
Tracing families back over centuries to Spain is a daunting task, but some people want to, especially the Catholics who note Jewish customs in their families, genetic historians say.
“Now you are seeing the descendants of the descendants of the descendants keep some sort of tradition alive. So now, when we are free in the western world, they can creep out of the shadows and start asking questions,” said Bennett Greenspan, the president of Family Tree DNA in Houston, which tests people for genetic markers.
He gets requests for Jewish testing from Hispanics “every single day … from all over the country,” Greenspan said. Although there is no “Jewish gene,” there is a detectable pattern that can link an individual to a Jewish gene pool.
Clients tell him they “cannot rest” until they know the truth about their family’s past.
The awareness of heritage is not surprising, said Eugene Rothman, who teaches Judaic studies at the University of Miami.
“We’re into roots. Everything is changing around us. You buy a computer and six months later it’s obsolete — nothing is stable anymore. It creates a desire on the part of people to find something they can hold onto,” he said. “That’s why genealogy is so important. It gives you a sense of place.”
The history of conversos in Florida could be more significant than people realize, said Marcia Jo Zerivitz, executive director of the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach.
Some of Christopher Columbus’ crew were known conversos who crossed an ocean to escape from Spain. She asks whether conversos also helped establish St. Augustine in 1565. The list of settlers of Florida’s oldest city includes some traditionally Jewish names.
“They couldn’t have been here as Jews or they would have been killed. No one could live under Spanish rule unless they were Catholic,” Zerivitz said. “King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella said leave or convert. It was extended to any place that Spain owned, like Florida.”
She wants to hire scholars who could interpret genealogy records in Barcelona archives that are written in archaic Spanish.
The first documented community of Jews in the United States was in New Amsterdam, later New York, in 1654. If Zerivitz can prove conversos came to Florida almost 100 years earlier, she said, the revelation would “re-write American-Jewish history.”
Even without documentation, Jeannina Torres, 27, of North Miami, acted on a hunch about her heritage.
In her native Peru, Torres thought it was odd that her Catholic family separated their dishes for dairy and meat, when none of her friends’ families did that. Later, she learned kosher laws forbid mixing dairy and meat products.
Torres’ sister, now 35, converted to Judaism in her 20s. Torres converted two years ago.
She said her family believes they came to Peru from Spain, and her mother’s family name, Landa, could have Jewish roots.
“We don’t have any factual evidence, we only have what we know, which are the last names and the conversations,” Torres said.
While her sister was converting, she spoke to her great-aunt, who said, “Somebody’s going back to our roots.”
Berglin, the Fort Lauderdale Jewish convert, is planning a trip to northern Italy next year to interview her older relatives there. She plans to spend months poring through public records and will venture to Spain to dig more deeply into her suspected Jewish roots.
“I want to find out if it’s absolutely true,” she said. “There’s a lot of work to do. Tradition has always meant a lot to me, to follow the ways of your past. In Judaism, tradition is very strong. I always felt it.”